Give up or let go? What’s the difference?

Why do we give up? Why do we surrender, admit defeat, part ways with somebody or something, or stop hoping for a positive outcome? Maybe it’s because sticking with it is too hard, or it takes too long, or because we’re tired of failing. Sometimes we decide that we’re just not strong enough to see something through, or we just don’t care enough.

That’s very different from letting go, at least in the Buddhist sense of letting go. Letting go means easing up on the tightness with which we hold onto people, things or ideas. It means relinquishing our hold on how we want things to be, and instead knowing that we have given our best effort and now we accept what happens. Thich Nhat Hanh has written:

…for many of us, even when we are most joyful, there is fear behind our joy…We are afraid of things outside of ourselves that we cannot control…We try to hold tight to the things we care about — our positions, our property, our loved ones. But holding tightly doesn’t ease our fear. Eventually, one day, we will have to let go of all of them.

Letting go can be a lot scarier than giving up. When you give up, you can stop thinking about the person, thing or  idea, and just eliminate it from your life. Letting go, on the other hand, means realizing that you don’t have control over everything, and you might have to live with and accept an outcome that is different than what you hoped for. You don’t stop caring when you let go of the outcome.

How can the feelings of caring very deeply about something, while at the same time having no control over it, co-exist? To Jon Kabat-Zinn, letting go is “allowing things to be as they are.” That means being a witness to one’s fears and insecurities, being fully aware of those feelings, and being able to live peacefully with them. How hard is that?!

Without a doubt, a really strong mindfulness practice is a good place to start the process of letting go: The practice of looking deeply inside and not being afraid of what arises, but rather noting it and letting it go by. But that’s not enough. We also have to be able, in that stillness, to move from worry and unease to comfort and joy. Not an easy task!

Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that instead of running from the present moment because of the difficulties we face there, we instead try to remember all the positive things in life, which usually are greater. Maybe it’s the smiling face of a loved one, a particular place that brings you peace, or some accomplishment of which you are proud. There is an exercise in a stress workbook that I have, which can help identify both the things in life that drain your energy (the difficulties and worries) as well as the things that fill you with energy and revitalize you. These are the things you want to bring attention to:

Drainers and Fillers

Once you go through this process of identifying what aspects of your life are either filling you with joy and energy, or sapping your strength, you can make decisions. There might actually be things on the left side (drainers) it would make sense to give up on. There will be others on which you’ll want to loosen your grip and try to live with more peacefully. The fillers will help you do that — you’ll remember who is there to support you, what brings you joy, and where you find meaning in your life. The fillers will provide the images you turn your thoughts to during meditation. They will help you remember the wide open space in front of you, and all of the possibility that exists beyond your fears.

Savoring a sunny day

What do you want your day to feel like? The question isn’t what do you have to do today, or what do you want to accomplish today — but how do you want it to feel as you are going about it? What emotion or sensation do you want as an evocation of your day?

I want my day to feel like sunshine.

How did I choose sunshine? I started my day with an on-line meditation from Amy Ippoliti. With a paper and pen nearby, the practice began with gratitude – what do you feel good about, grateful for, right now? The next few minutes were spent contemplating yesterday’s successes or positive moments. In each case, I meditated on the question, then wrote things down. And for the final step of the meditation, the question was, “What do you want your day to feel like?” Is it a feeling of joy, or fun, or ease?  Can you visualize it?

Sometimes when we’ve been going through a succession of bad days, or are under a lot of stress, it’s hard to remember that we can often choose how to feel, just as we can choose how to react. I know that’s true for me. A series of mishaps in my home, a lot of travel recently, and some new responsibilities have overwhelmed me at times. I focus on the negatives, let myself get carried away with anxiety, and forget that these are very, very small problems compared to what some people face.

So this morning I looked at my gratitude list. It included feelings about my children and the comfortable life I have. I thought about a letter I recently received from someone who referred to my son’s smile as “a little bit of sunshine.”

I considered everything that was positive about yesterday — the helpfulness of the people I dealt with, the fact that I felt in control of things instead of overwhelmed, the nice mid-day run that I had, and most of all, the beautiful, sunny, cloudless day that it was.

So when I got to the part about how do I want my day to feel today, there was no question that I wanted it to feel like sunshine. I wanted it to feel like that beautiful cloudless day, my son’s smile and being bathed in light.

The thing is, though, that not every day is sunny and cloud-free. Some days are overcast, both literally and spiritually. So how do we capture the sunshine on those days? How can we sustain the positive emotions from one day to the next, no matter what happens?

A recent study by Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin showed that some people are able to savor positive emotions longer, while in other people they subside quickly. The difference is related in part to the activation of the reward center in the brain. So capturing sunshine on a cloudy day depends on keeping that reward center more active.

There’s no question that doing so requires making a choice to focus on those positive emotions. It might be by meditating on lovingkindness or compassion, or by calling up memories of a time that felt especially joyful or comforting. In either case, the goal is to really drop back in to that feeling, so much so that you experience it all over again. The more you practice doing that, the easier it will be to get back to that baseline of positive emotion.

This 5-Finger Exercise* is good way to begin (spend 2 minutes on each part):

Touch your thumb to your index finger. Think about  time when your body felt healthy fatigue, such as after an exhilarating physical activity. Can you capture the feeling again now?

Touch your thumb to your middle finger. Think back to a time when you had a loving experience, perhaps a warm hug or an intimate moment with someone.

Touch your thumb to your ring finger. Now recall the nicest compliment you’ve ever received. Can you really accept it now? By accepting it, you are giving a gift to the person who said it to you.

Touch your thumb to your little finger. As you do so, go back to the most beautiful place you have ever been and dwell there for a while.

 

 

 

 

*The 5 Finger Exercise is adapted from one I was given. I’m sorry I do not know who developed it.

 

Intentional living

Many yoga teachers suggest setting an intention at the beginning of a practice. It helps ground you in the moment and keeps you focused on why you are there. But an intention is not the same thing as a goal. Philip Merrill wrote about the difference in Yoga Journal: “It is not oriented toward a future outcome. Instead, it is a path or practice that is focused on how you are “being” in the present moment…You set your intentions based on understanding what matters most to you and make a commitment to align your worldly actions with your inner values.”

Life has been busy and stressful for me lately. Luckily, most of the stress is the good kind: getting ready for an upcoming vacation, planning a move. But as much as I want and look forward to those events, they have upended my life a bit, and made me anxious at times. So two weeks ago I began to set intentions as I woke up each morning. Working with an intention has helped keep the stress at bay and provide clarity about what is important.

Some of my daily intentions have been:

Joy. Waking in the morning and setting a simple intention of being joyful that day has been very powerful for me. So many times our days are spent dealing with problems and mistakes, and things that go wrong. We lose the feeling of innate joy that we are born with. Setting an intention of joy helps me laugh with people, find humor in bad situations, and stay focused on the overall happiness of my life even on a bad day.

Organization. While this sounds more like a goal than an intention, my purpose was very immediate on the day I woke and this word came to mind. I think at that moment it was about having an organized mind as much as an organized life; about acting in an organized way rather than jumping from task to task, and worry to worry.

Equanimity. Like organization, the intention of equanimity is about how I react to what’s going on in my life. It’s easy when we’re under stress to overreact, to catastrophize, to overlook the solutions or silver linings. Setting an intention to foster equanimity in my life helps me recognize that while I cannot control what happens, I can control how I react to what happens. It’s my choice of reaction that will lead to either suffering or happiness.

Kindness. It seems to me that kindness is deeply connected to mindfulness. It’s hard to act kindly without being present to what is happening around me and noticing what others are experiencing. Practicing kindness and compassion gets us out of the mind and into the heart. We forget our own problems for a while to focus on someone else. It’s a win-win for all.

Setting an intention for each day helps guide my actions. The Chopra Center quotes from the Hindu Upanishads to explain the connection between intentions and actions:

“You are what your deepest desire is.
As your desire is, so is your intention. 
As your intention is, so is your will.
As your will is, so is your deed.
As your deed is, so is your destiny.”IMG_0648

When we set intentions, we direct our will in such a way that all our actions take the course we have chosen. If my intention is kindness, and I choose to act kindly, then I have set myself on that path for the day. It becomes my destiny.

Winston Churchill said that, “It is a mistake to look too far ahead. Only one link of the chain of destiny can be handled at a time.” In that sense, setting a new intention each day keeps us present-focused, touching just the one link that will lead to the next.

Rising above

Have you ever laughed when someone fell down? Have you ever resented someone who has success that you want for yourself? Is it hard to feel joy for someone to whom you compare yourself? One of the premises of a new book by Richard H. Smith, The Joy of Pain, is that these feelings are part of what makes us human. Often referred to as schadenfreude – a German term meaning both harm and joy – the emotion we experience in that situation allows us to feel better about ourselves.

One of my husband’s favorite movie quotes is from a scene in “The African Queen,” starring Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. Bogart plays Charlie, a hard-living, cynical riverboat captain, and Hepburn’s character is Rose, a prim and proper missionary. At one point during their many arguments, Rose says to Charlie, “Human nature is what God put us on earth to rise above.

When my kids were little, I told them countless times that it was wrong to “laugh at the misfortunes of others.” Even at a young age, we compare ourselves to other people, and maybe the laughter comes from nervous relief that the embarrassment happened to someone else. But even if it is human nature to take pleasure in someone else’s downfall, I don’t think it comes without another distinctly human emotion: shame.

In the novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, the main character says, “I know something of shame…How can we not all feel it? We are all small-minded people, creeping about the earth grubbing for our own advantage and making the very mistakes for which we want to humiliate our neighbors.” At some point, the experience of schadenfreude has to make us feel hypocritical, knowing that we are playing a mental game of one-upmanship. The neighbor or co-worker’s failure somehow makes us more likely to succeed, or at least to feel superior, no matter how temporary that might be, or how undeserved.

Is human nature something we can rise above? Even Smith admits that humans are also wired for compassion. And practicing compassion can probably help us downplay those feelings of glee when something bad happens to someone we don’t like or with whom we compete. What is infinitely harder, I think, is actually being able to feel glad when something good happens for the person we don’t like. How can I summon genuine feelings of happiness for the kid who was mean to my child, or for the person who made a cutting remark to me, or for the politician who betrayed the public’s trust?

Among the Buddhist meditation practices known as brahmaviharas is one called mudita. Mudita is essentially a practice of sympathetic joy. It helps to counter feelings of jealousy and envy, and increases one’s capacity to feel joy and happiness for others’ good fortune. Practicing mudita calls for bringing to mind various people, and then mentally wishing them continued happiness. Since this feeling needs to be actively cultivated in most people, it helps to start the practice of mudita by calling to mind your own goodness and happiness, followed by people you love, and finally, the people who are difficult for you.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Yoga Journal web site has a very thorough article that explains mudita and how to practice it. The concluding wishes go like this:

“May your happiness and joy increase. May the joy in your life continue and grow. May you be successful and met with appreciation.”

Mudita asks that we stop thinking of life as a zero-sum game, and recognize that our own happiness increases when others are happy too, even our enemies. That’s how the human spirit rises above the human nature.

Take it outside

There is joy in motion. It’s that simple. That feeling hit me today when I saw a photo in the paper of people doing Zumba outdoors. Their expressions are exuberant, their energy is contagious.

zumba2

Outdoor exercise has a more free feeling than working out in a gym. Without the confines of walls and machines, something loosens inside. We take more chances, express ourselves more openly, lose some of our inhibitions. There’s also more of a sense of community, because we are physically in the community. And in some cases, the workouts are literally free – free yoga at the farmers’ market, free Zumba on the plaza and free Pilates in the parks.

Besides the individual benefits of outdoor, community exercise, public group workouts can demystify the practices for people who are unfamiliar with them. “Zumba”, “yoga”, “Pilates” – what do those words mean to someone who has never set foot in a gym or yoga studio? They sound like mysterious, esoteric practices that might be difficult and extreme. But when you see other people who look like you doing the moves, you begin to believe that you can do them too.

Americans are full of contradictions. We’re living longer than we did 20 years ago, but with more chronic conditions. Some of us are exercising more, but it’s not enough to keep the rates of obesity from rising. We’re not dying in accidents as much, but many more of us have diabetes. Complicated problems that require complex solutions, right? But while scientists are busy looking for treatments and technologies, we have the power to change our own trajectory. Rediscovering the joy in motion and the freedom of the outdoors can be part of that change.

My mother used to lock us out of the house sometimes when I was a kid. That wasn’t as bad as it sounds. In good weather, we were expected to play outside with other kids in the neighborhood; and if one of us came back in with dirty hands and feet, she wanted to know about it. Playing outside got me out of my head and out of my books for a while. It was during those summertime lockouts that I learned to take risks, like riding downhill on my bike without hands, and to play sports with the boys, and to see just how high we could get the playground swings to go.IMG

What childhood activity brought you that freewheeling joy? Summer might be an ideal time to find the feeling again, either as a way to get a fitness routine going, or to get out of a fitness rut. Look around you – those people dancing in the streets and posing like warriors in the farmers’ market are smiling for a reason.